When I initially started looking at poems by the late Sappho, I was a bit put off by the first few poems I read. The first few poems I came upon seemed to be glorifications of her male/godly crushes, like a school-girl who fantasizes about having her first kiss. The poems seemed to counter what I thought the class was about, so I kept looking. I came upon a poem called “Before They Were Mothers,” and it stuck with me.
The poem is a short, four-lined prose that is loaded with tales of strife and violence. The poem reads as, “Before they were mothers, Leto and Niobe, had been the most, devoted of friends.” At first glance, the poem pokes at my inquisitive nature, and presses me to ask more questions about the context of the poem. Who were Leto and Niobe? Were they lovers? Why would having children strain their relationship? I then thought of the more innocent scenarios as to why they would suddenly terminate their friendship. I thought of gender norms and expectations placed on mothers. Maybe they could no longer go out for drinks because their kids had sports to be at. Were they soccer moms who no longer had time for kinship due to the expectation that as mothers, their kids’ lives and activities are more important than their own happiness and need for social interaction? I had too many questions to not study more on the subject, so I worked the Google machine and dug deeper.
I researched more on the relationship between Niobe and Leto, and found some interesting drama between the two. Niobe was the princess of Tantalus, who was best-friends with the goddess Leto. One day, Niobe was bragging about the number of children she had, 14, and how great and perfect they were to Leto. Leto, having only two children, Artemis and Apollo, became very jealous that Niobe had both more and wonderful children. It is a little strange that gods and humans could be so close as to get jealous of one another, especially because a god is a GOD, who has magical powers and doesn’t have to suffer mortality, but alas, that is the scenario. Leto has her children, Artemis and Apollo, kill Niobe’s sons and daughters. Niobe, grief-stricken, runs back to her mountain and turns into stone. The story is honestly, extremely dramatic and the cause of the violence is downright petty. I was quite annoyed at how petty the story was because it truly seemed like a bad episode of The Real Housewives of Orange County.